Coronavirus - Panic In Aisle 5
Updated: May 19
Mal Goes Grocery Shopping and Barely Gets Out Alive
On the Cusp
Some of you may not know that I've chosen to live in California, about a thirty minute drive from Yosemite National Park in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, the land of strange facial hair and Ford F-150 pickup trucks. I mention where I live only because there are far fewer people per square unit of measure here than in NYC, so in the time of Coronavirus, just like in the deodorant commercial, this takes the worry out of being close . . . for a normal person.
But according to my last partner, I’m not a normal person! In fact, after taking just one adult night course semester of Psychology 101, she became totally convinced that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. She may have arrived at this conclusion after noticing that often I would focus on something so intensely that it seemed like an obsession to her. It could also have been because I felt compelled to talk about stuff in which she wasn’t the least bit interested. Plus — triple-whammy in the negative column on my side — the fact that I wasn’t all that interested in hearing about her garden projects only added fuel to the fire. Deeply offended by my failure to notice how many weeds had been disappeared or new plants realized by her never-ending landscaping efforts, her “diagnosis” was most likely a semi-goodnatured ribbing of sorts.
By the way, I was a psych major in college, and although that doesn’t qualify me for much, I’m pretty certain that I don’t have Asperger’s. However, I will concede that it’s entirely possible that I could reside somewhere on the cusp.
Blessing or Curse?
Because of my background in psychology, I’m constantly engaging in self-assessment. I’m fond of convincing myself that my compulsive attention to detail and need for order, rather than being considered a handicap, just might be one of my greatest strengths. And although I’ve come to believe that these traits are definitely an asset for the owner of a cleaning business, in these stressful times my compulsiveness may have become a curse.
Take, for example, a recent shopping expedition to my local supermarket. Having armed myself to the teeth with a zipper-sealed plastic bag full of nitrile exam gloves, hand sanitizer, and a face mask, I ventured forth into the abyss, ready for anything, or so I thought. I donned my PPE before opening the car door, stepped onto the asphalt of the parking lot, and focusing straight ahead, advanced towards the automatic entrance doors, being sure to keep at least six feet of distance between myself and the enemy (i.e. other people — a.k.a. “anyone who is not me”).
My feeling of dread as I entered the store manifested itself as a tightening in my throat and a turtle-like retraction of my neck … a futile attempt to eliminate any chinks in my Coronavirus armor. Mitch McConnell has nothing on me! In better days, I would just grab a disinfectant wipe or two from the dispenser by the cart corral and casually wipe down the cart handle and small-item upper basket. But now, even though I was wearing gloves, I was faced with having to decide which hand would touch the shopping cart and which hand would do the wiping.
The Best-Laid Plans
I had rehearsed an elaborate plan of attack in my head, but that all went to hell when I realized that, in order to open any refrigerated case containing food, I had to touch the handle. Great … which finger of which hand should I use? I ended up using my right pinky, but then when I reached into the case to grab my first item, a container of half-and-half, I realized that any fingertips that already had touched the handle of the cart now could contaminate the container I was about to grab. What if I hadn’t done a thorough enough job with the disinfectant wipe? Did I remember to turn the oven off? Uh-oh! The fingers of my glove could be contaminated by the cart and further contaminated if there was any virus on the container of half and half. I wasn’t worried so much about immediate self-contamination — I was wearing gloves after all — but rather about what I should do once I got home with bags full of groceries that might be compromised. So now I could no longer use my fingertips to touch the shopping cart handle and had to use the heel of my hand instead. Wait . . . which hand was it that I’m supposed to use?!
It became painfully clear that it would be impossible to keep track of which hand did what or had touched whatever in every aisle, so I ditched my plan and resigned myself to touching everything with my gloved finger tips. OK, great . . . I can live with that, but now I have products sitting in my shopping cart that could be contaminated with Coronavirus. Which means that, for peace of mind, I’ll need to disinfect everything when I get home.
Okay, okay . . . GO! … next aisle. As I’m standing there mesmerized by a jar of hamburger relish, two strangers, deep in conversation and totally oblivious to the concept of social distancing, inched ever closer, stopping within just two or three feet from me. Even though I had my back to them, I was extremely uncomfortable. Yet, for some reason, I found myself semi-paralyzed, shrouded in a mental fog. I didn’t move away from them, nor did I ask them to back off. WTF! Did I just risk my life by being passive? The fog lifted … snatching the relish, I quickly put some distance between myself and the two intruders. Note to self — next time be more proactive and either say something or move!
I reached into my shirt pocket, extracted my cell phone, (now contaminated by my gloved hands, so it too will need to be disinfected later on), and quickly glanced at my saved shopping list. Among other things, I still needed to buy some frozen vegetables. Rounding the corner to the frozen vegetable aisle, I noticed one lone shopper standing in front of the vegetable cases. I was probably about sixty feet away from him, when he coughed. F**k!! That’s just terrific … I’m not going anywhere near that spot now! So for the next ten to fifteen minutes I continued from aisle to aisle, at this point in full stealth mode, until I had scored most of the items that were on my list. But wait … there was something I wanted … what the hell was it? Oh yeah, the frozen veggies. But how long do those micro cough droplets that could be chock full of Coronavirus linger in the air? Is it even safe to go down that aisle anymore? What if that stuff is just hanging in the air like a toxic cloud, waiting for me to walk through it, and contract the disease? F**k!! I’m wearing a mask, but it’s not an N-95, and even if it were, N-95 filtration isn’t fine enough to remove Coronavirus particles. It can trap particles down to 0.3 microns in size, but Coronavirus particles are generally much smaller than that. Although some particles might be stopped — much like water droplets remaining on the mesh of a sieve — many more would pass through.
Still, one of my main reasons for making this trip was to pick up some frozen veggies that would last more than just a few days in my fridge. I sure as hell don’t want to do this again any sooner than I have to! Do I risk going down the aisle where the guy coughed, or do I skip it altogether? Tough decision for anyone, not to mention a compulsive germaphobe. “OK”, whispered my inner coach, “Pull yourself together! … You really need some veggies or you’ll turn into a noodle.” Alright, I’m going to parachute in, hold my breath for as long as I can, grab what I need, and get the hell out of Dodge. As I strode down the aisle, rapidly scanning from side to side, I noticed that most of the shelves inside the first forty-five feet of frozen food cases had been picked bare of anything that was even close to a vegetable or had “veg” as part of its name. Skidding to a halt in front of the last veggie case, my heart sank … only two 20 ounce bags remained, rejected and coldheartedly tossed aside by all who had come before me. The front of both bags was facing down, so I had to roll them over to see the contents. Chopped collard greens … my taste buds were set for yellow corn or green beans, but … hey … I actually like collard greens! I can toss them into soup or add them to an omelette, or … okay, just grab them and go. At least they’re green!
With my list completed and my shopping cart full, I was the third person in the checkout line. As I was looking around to make sure no one sneaked up on me from behind, I heard a loud sneeze coming from what I thought was the direction of the guy standing in front of the cashier and card swipe keypad. I could’t be certain, because my attention had been elsewhere, but damn! Did he sneeze into the air … into his hand … into the inside of his elbow??! Sh*t! Should I switch lines? Abandon my cart and run for my life?! Wait … wait … breathe … you’re more than fifteen feet away from the guy, and the person in front of you has a ton of groceries to check out, so with any luck any droplets containing Coronavirus will have completely dispersed by the time you get to the register. H-m-m … with any luck … or not … I’ll be lucky, unless I’m not … Should I press my luck? … Is my luck about to run out? Okay, stay calm. Remember … you’re wearing a mask and gloves.
Settling the Score
My turn … finally. Oddly enough, the cashier was not wearing gloves or a mask … is he nuts?! A genuine daredevil … hope he has good insurance. I began bagging my items as fast as I could, not so much to be helpful, although that was part of it, but more to ensure that fewer items would have been touched and therefore doubly-contaminated by the cashier and then need to be disinfected when I got home. With all the bags full and in my cart, it was now time to pay. Oh, sh*t … I’m going to need to reach into my pants pocket to take out my wallet and my debit card. Now the inside of my pocket will be contaminated … and the debit card too! Nothing I can do about it … there’s no Apple Pay here where I can just wave my iPhone (already contaminated for sure!) at the terminal. So now I’ll have to disinfect my wallet and my debit card and throw my pants into the wash the minute I get in the front door. I enter my customer rewards number, then my PIN, hit ENTER, and wait for the comforting beep confirming that, at least here in this place, I’m meeting someone’s approval.
But wait … it’s still not over! The small matter of the printed receipt remains. The cashier flashes a polite smile my way, raises one eyebrow, tears off the receipt, and delicately pinching opposite ends of the paper ribbon between the thumb and index finger of each hand, extends both arms out straight with a look that says, “I’m being super considerate by giving you the maximum area of paper to grab hold of, so just the itsy-bitsy ends will need to be incinerated later on.” I carefully took hold of the middle of the receipt and folded it over once, twice, three times before stuffing it into the billfold compartment inside my wallet. I’ll have to remember to disinfect not only the compartment but also the back of the $20.00 bill that’s now contaminated by the germ-laden receipt.
Alright … time to get out of here! I accelerate rapidly, pushing my cart towards the exit, veering off course and zig-zagging several times to avoid other shoppers and carts, but never slowing down, until I hear the welcome whoosh of the automatic doors as they slide open and I make my escape into the rainy night. My car is parked close to the exit, so I don’t have very far to go. Unloading the cart as fast as I can, I toss everything into the rear storage area and close the twin rear doors of my SUV with a reassuring double thunk.
Time to discard my PPE. I carefully take off my gloves, and without thinking, drop them on the ground. “Inconsiderate”, I say to myself, resolving never to do that again. Still wearing my mask, I hoist myself into the driver’s seat and finally remove it. I know I should have tossed it, but I only have a few left, and right now it’s impossible to find them anywhere, online or off. So it will stay snugly nestled in the center console until the next time I need it, which I hope is not anytime soon!
Return to Base
Safely ensconced in the comforting confines of the driver’s seat, I heaved a sigh of relief as a soothing wave of calm swept over me. I had no clue at the outset of this mission just how stressful it would be, and I was thankful that it was nearly over. I turned the key in the ignition, backed out of the parking space, shifted the manual transmission into first gear, and deftly navigated the obstacle course of parked vehicles, many carelessly abandoned with their rear ends sticking out a bit too far into the driveway. As I had done on countless less critical missions before, I decided to take the long way around the shopping center so that, rather than have to risk an unsupervised left turn across four lanes of opposing traffic, I would sacrifice a few minutes to allow a traffic signal to safely shepherd my turn through a nearby intersection. When it comes to stress, as with design, I’m a believer in “Less is more”.
Once through the intersection, I headed downhill and merged right onto the main highway that wound its way up the steep terrain of Deadwood Summit (elevation 3000 feet). I did my best to avoid looking out over the edge as the lights of the valley faded into the distance far below me, because I’d read somewhere that, “You end up driving towards where you’re looking”, and I was afraid I might accidentally pull a “Thelma & Louise” and find myself sailing out into space, never to be heard from again. Visions of the future headline, “Local Business Owner Found Dead in SUV in Treetops Off Deadwood”, jolted my attention back to the rapidly flashing dotted line of the roadway ahead.
It’s a relatively short drive back to my home, so I needed to immediately begin planning my arrival procedure. Another plan to go awry? Perhaps, but the mental exercise provided a welcome distraction from thoughts that there could be millions of Coronavirus particles spewing forth from the open window of the car ahead of me. My fingertip blanched white as I pressed the button that rolled up the driver’s side window, while I simultaneously closed the air intake vent of my vehicle’s climate control system.
My house (shaped exactly like a miniature Monopoly house, except that it’s painted a kind of pale huckleberry hue) and my driveway are deliberately nondescript, partially obscured by large granite boulders, buckthorn, live oak, and manzanita. When I built the house, unlike the rest of the houses on my street, I made sure that it was set back far from the road, so casual passersby would not be able to see inside through my open blinds. I pulled into the gravel driveway, slowly rolled up and over “the mound” and wound my way down and to the left, coming to rest just in front of my covered porch that provides some respite from the hot sun of California summers.
Donning a second pair of nitrile gloves, I unloaded the car and deposited some of the shopping bags on the mat made of recycled rubber truck tires placed just outside my front door, with the overflow ending up on the bare concrete of the porch slab.
Crossing the Threshold
Once inside the door, I disabled my loudly chirping alarm system while at the same time holding back my cat Fantom (deliberately not spelled Phantom) from escaping into the darkness. It’s always been a bit disheartening to know that, even though I think he loves me (or whatever it is that cats feel towards their human companions), he would totally blow me off for a life of unfettered freedom and adventure.
Decisions … decisions! Where to put the groceries? On the counter? … I don’t think so. On the floor? … I’ll need to remember exactly where they were and disinfect that spot later on. There wasn’t going to be a perfect solution. Just like looking for the best balance of features vs. price when buying a digital camera or computer, it was going to be a compromise. Succumbing to the inevitable, I opted for a combination of the two. I placed all of the bags on the floor, just inside the boundaries of my open kitchen, and then flipped up the twin leaves of my rolling center island to provide a larger staging area for further distribution.
Fortunately, I had just received my order of an EPA-registered disinfectant the day before, so I spritzed a copious quantity onto a microfiber cloth and began meticulously wiping down each of the items I had placed on the island. The type of outer packaging material containing each item didn’t affect my process. Whether plastic, cardboard, or metal … frozen, refrigerated, or room temperature … each item received the same treatment. I also wiped down the space that I had saved at one end of the island, so that I could transfer the newly-disinfected items to a pristine spot. I continued the process, alternately wiping down first the items and then the adjacent empty spot where they had been, until everything had been safely transferred and no item or island surface remained untreated.
Now it was time to retrace my steps and disinfect everything that I had touched on the way into my house. First I wiped the outer, then inner egg-shaped doorknobs that are mirror images of each other, the winged deadbolt knob, and also the light switches and cover plate just inside the door. For a few fleeting moments, I fantasized myself an assassin whose very life depended upon remembering which surfaces would need to be wiped down to eliminate incriminating fingerprints. This surely must become incredibly tedious and stressful, especially if one is a successful assassin with lots of victims! Then again, maybe it all just becomes routine after a while for a seasoned operator. Still, I wondered what assassins do for stress relief … rid the world of excess clowns perhaps.
Finally I used 70% alcohol to disinfect my keys, iPhone, and wallet. Don’t worry … I didn’t forget to wipe down the billfold compartment, the $20.00 bill, and my debit card. As for my clothing, I carefully took off my pants, shirt, and down vest, so as not to shake loose any Coronavirus particles that may have settled on them, and tossed them into the wash. Yup, you guessed right… I wiped down the control knobs and recessed latch of the washing machine door too.
Now sensing that I was in the home stretch, I took off my nitrile gloves using correct doffing protocol that starts with pinching the cuff of one glove and and peeling it off with the opposite gloved hand. Carefully inserting my bare fingertip under the cuff of the remaining glove, I pulled it inside out while trapping the now balled up first glove inside the second glove. I then tossed both into my kitchen step can. Eager to rid myself of the contaminated gloves, I removed my foot a bit too fast from the pedal and nearly scared myself to death when the metal lid slammed shut with a resounding “Clang!”. The noise was so loud that the kitchen glass-break sensor caused my alarm system to chirp two warning beeps.
Okay … time to wrap things up. I sang a silent “Happy Birthday!” in my head not twice, but three times for good measure, as I washed my hands in the hall bathroom — away from the kitchen sink and food prep area — after which I returned to the kitchen to stow everything in its proper place. I already could tell that I was going to get really sick of “Happy Birthday!” really fast, and that I definitely would need to come up with a different tune at some point. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” maybe?
Whew … that whole ordeal was unbelievably exhausting! Just the thought of it and my neck is as knotted as the rubber band that powered the wind-up propeller of those balsa wood model airplanes I used to fly as a kid! I never want to have to go through this again as long as I live … and may that be for a long, long time!
I’m happy to report that my local supermarket is now providing online ordering and curbside delivery, so I no longer have to venture inside the store to buy stuff. Since the completion of this particular mission, I’ve made two additional shopping trips, and although I’ve relaxed my standards a bit, I still wear a mask and gloves and disinfect everything upon returning home.
And finally, just in case anyone is freaked out by my assassin fantasy, I want to assure you that, if I were an assassin, I’d be a “good assassin” who only kills evil people that deserve to die, and not a “bad assassin” who kills indiscriminately.
Stay safe and healthy everyone!